Monthly Archives: April 2002

Cogent Childfree Arguments

Ahh. This time, I come not to troll alt.support.childfree members, but to praise them (one, at least). A certain J. Metz has posted a long, cogent and well-written piece on the complaints of the childfree, and I actively encourage everyone who has been enjoying the carnage of the last few days to head on over and read it (J. Metz prefaces by noting that the post does not speak for all childfree, although I find it hard to see why any of them might complain). Not surprisingly, many of the points of contention that he lists in the post are things I would agree with as well. Here are a few of them:

* Children who grow up thinking that they are entitled to special privileges because they are not educated otherwise — Having gone to an expensive private boarding school, I can wholeheartedly endorse this one. Kids need a sense of where their boundaries are, and what’s expected of them, and parents are the ones that are supposed to provide that.

* Parents who think that they are not responsible for their child’s actions — This is the “Sorry about that broken window but my kid’s just going through a phase” syndrome. Pay for the friggin’ window and drill some sense into the kid.

* Parents who hypocritically expect non-parents to forego legitimate behaviors and entertainment that they themselves engaged in before they were parents, simply for the sake of “for the children.” Examples include, but are not limited to, profanity, violence, and sex-laden movies that any adult should have the right to determine for him/herself whether they should attend — Testify and amen. Yes, some of you will point out that fairly recently I got paid to write reviews of video games for parents. But I’ll remind you that I always said that just because the games weren’t for children, didn’t mean they weren’t for adults (I enjoyed “Max Payne” too much to want it pushed off the shelves).

* Parents who get tax breaks for having children, then want the government to give them money from people who *don’t* have children to receive vouchers for private schools. — Personally, I’d include people who do have children, too, since I find the idea of private school vouchers odious. If I’m going to be taxed for the public schools, and I am (the town in which I live has one of the highest school taxes in Ohio), all that money damn well better be going to the local public schools.

* Parents who refuse to require their children to respect other adults (e.g., how many times have I heard a parent introduce me to their 5-year old child as “J” instead of Mr. Metz or Dr. Metz, as my parents taught me, and as I deserve? Teach your child some respect, dammit!) — Total agreement, and of course, I would expand that to making sure the child is polite in general. Athena knows (most of the time) to say “please” and “thank you” and the looks of amazement we get as parents for this fact is a little embarrassing. All children can be taught politeness (it’s a key factor in having them become polite adults), and all children should.

Of course, I don’t agree with everything he posts, although I find that most of the disagreements are philosophical and more a matter of degree and not kind. For example, I see it in society’s legitimate interest to make sure all children are adequately schooled and healthy; sure, sickly, ignorant children are cute when they’re small, but then they grow up, and you can’t do a damn thing with them.

I would suspect Mr. Metz would agree with me on that, although the question would then be what level of social responsibility is appropriate; one of his peeves is “Being financially and socially taxed for the benefit of parents who see it as an entitlement.” On my end, I do think there’s an entitlement, although I think it’s more accurately for the kids and not the parents. I don’t feel Mr. Metz should be socially taxed, of course. I think we should just use his money. A few decades from now those kids will be (hopefully) cutting him a check for Social Security (which is drawn from a pool of income generated by current workers), so the expenditure has some chance of coming back to him.

This pet peeve also caught my eye: “Parents who tolerate behavior from their children when they wouldn’t tolerate it before they had kids.” I totally get this, since before Athena, I would look at a kid engaging in bad behavior in public and I would turn to Krissy and say, “If our kid ever does that, we mulch it and start over.” And Krissy would nod and we’d move on, smug in our own imagined parental skills.

The big fly in this ointment, however, is that children have their own minds, and ones that unfortunately don’t have the best impulse control. No matter how good your kid is, or how good a parent you are, sooner or later the meltdown is coming, and you have to deal with it. To be clear, most (well, many) parents don’t tolerate the behavior, they endure it, and then if they’re smart, they try to work on the kid so it happens less. We’re pretty good parents and Athena’s a pretty good kid, but sometimes she’s really not, and then, of course, as parents we look like asses. Believe me when I say we try to minimize such events. And of course, we sympathize when we see it happening to other parents.

(Of course, Mr. Metz may not be talking about spot fits and tantrums, but a tolerance for obnoxious behavior over a long term. In that aspect, I’m in his camp. Mulch ‘em, kids and parents both.)

From what I can see in a general sense, most of the complaints of the childfree break into two general camps: The first is perceived obnoxious social behavior on the part of children and parents; the second is a perceived social stigma for those without children, rooted in the culture as large, especially expressed in the cultural bias toward families, parents and children.

To be entirely honest, I don’t see the cultural bias toward families, parents and children going away, nor do I think it should — which is, I should note, something that I believed even while I had no child. Disregarding humanity’s overarching biological tendency for procreation, which reaches well into the childfree camp itself (I imagine the childfree like having sex, even if they prefer not to deal with the intended biological end result). I believe policies that encourage strong families and healthy, well-educated children have the end result of providing people with the social and physical skills they need to get through life (this is not to say I walk among the “family values” camp, unless the family values folks want to start admitting, say, that gays and lesbians can make dandy parents).

I understand the irritation that many childfree have in taking up the slack at work for a parent on family leave, but I don’t know that I would agree that the arrangement is inequitable in the larger sense; the problem is that the “larger sense” is by definition impersonal, but the childfree person personally has to shoulder the load. But it’s what you do living in a society: Not every aim of a society is going to be one that benefits you personally, even when it personally impacts you.

I could turn this around and note that 15.7% of my income goes to pay Social Security taxes (I’m self-employed, so I shell out more than most), and some of that goes to childfree retirees. By being childfree, they did not spawn the workers who would help pay for their Social Security as well — and those workers who don’t exist quite obviously won’t have children of their own to pay my Social Security when the time comes. Bearing in mind that Social Security is famously going to go broke right around the time I retire, these childfree retirees certainly did me no favors by not having kids. Nevertheless, I will continue to shell out 15.7%, some of which will continue to go to childfree retirees. It’s my responsibility as an American, and I don’t think it’s an unreasonable way to spend my taxes.

Leaving aside the issue of larger societal goals, there’s the other issue of the obnoxious social behavior. I really have no problems with the childfree bitching about this. I will admit to some mellowing as a parent, but let’s not mince words: Some kids are obnoxious, some parents are clueless, and the sooner they’re beaten with a stick, the happier we’ll all be. It should be obvious that I like being a parent, but I also know that that status comes with the responsibility of making sure that my kid is a decent human being and that I don’t view the world exclusively as a family fun park where everyone else exists to man the rides and sweep up after me and mine.

That’s a fair deal. I can handle that. And I try to make both those goals work. I think that’s likely to be acceptable to most of the childfree as well.

Sometimes I’m Not Nice

Note to any alt.support.childfree folks still loitering around. About yesterday’s piece: You Have Been Trolled. Not only have you been trolled, but it was a cross-platform troll; I didn’t even have to go over to your newsgroups and message boards to do it. I just slipped a note to a particularly excitable member of your breed and waited for him to do the rest, which of course he did. Thanks for amusing me for a day. Now, back to your holes, if you please.

Actually, most of the e-mails I’ve gotten about the subject are from fairly moderate childfree types who want to emphasize to me that not all childfree people want to see children and parents boiled in hot fat. And of course, I know this is true; I don’t expect that any of those folks would see what I wrote as applying to them. They have a little more sense than that.

No, yesterday’s bit was pretty much designed to enrage the dim and enrageable, which it did, judging from newsgroup and message board responses. Why did I bother? Oh, I don’t know. I guess I just like to poke at dumb animals from time to time.

***

I’ll be the first to admit that such trollage does not bring out the best side of me, but, look, I’m going to be honest with you: Being nice all the time is a real snooze. Every once in a while it’s fun to go off on a tear. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been especially ventful, and you know what? It’s been both fun and profitable. I’ve already cashed the check for the “I Hate Your Politics” reprint, for example, and I’ve had a ball antagonizing patronizingly annoying people on all sides of the parental issue. These are people who I feel quite frankly need some antagonizing, because, well, they’re bigass jerks (and besides, they started it. All of them). So not only am I doing a public service afflicting the excitable, I’m getting paid while I’m doing it. It’s a good life.

Again, I cheerfully admit that this particular attitude does not make me look any less of an asshole than the people I’ve been trading whacks with. However, it’s not like I actually care. I know my own soul and I’m not worried about its disposition. Taunting child haters or deadbeat-dad lovers or the politically tightly-wound on the Web is a low-impact sport. It’s just hot air and sparks. At the end of the day, I walk away from my computer and don’t think about any of it anymore, and I sincerely hope for their own mental well-being that others I’m having a hissy-fit with do the same thing.

Fundamentally, this is recreation. It’s not the really real world. I’m often serious in this space, but sometimes I’m not. I’m usually nice and reasonable, but occasionally I’ll ditch that face and put on another. Sometimes I go off and do something stupid, just to see what happens. Sometimes I taunt dumb animals just to hear ‘em growl. If they’re dumb enough to do it, well, more fun for me. An admirable quality? Probably not. But if it’s the worst I do on a regular basis, the world is pretty safe from me.

Trolling the Childfree

The chum monkeys of alt.support.childfree are hooting over this Whatever, in which I admit that since becoming a parent, I find e-mail hoaxes about exploding babies less amusing than I used to. Since this particular Whatever has been loitering unnoticed in the archives for a couple of years, I was curious as to how it came to their attention at all. Turns out one of the childfree folks entered the words “exploding babies” into a Google search (this is apparently something you do when you spend a lot of time in alt.support.childfree), and that Whatever is the first thing that pops up in the search list. There’s a Google distinction for you: When you think of exploding babies, think of John Scalzi. Thank you very much.

Anyway, this fellow posted a link to alt.support.childfree, and encouraged people to send me mocking e-mail; of course, I went in and seconded that emotion, since we all know how much I enjoy a good pointless screed in my direction (to get them started, I even called them “smug, self-selecting genetic dead-ends” — I know they love that sort of thing coming from us breeders). Alas, no e-mails of any sort have been forthcoming, although I note that the alt.support.childfree rabble have been happily trashing my reply in their newsgroup (most of their comments concern a mistyped URL). I actually think this is a positive thing; Like the good little monkeys they are, they only fling their crap in their own cage. Everyone loves a well-trained primate.

James Lileks recently commented on the “childfree” types over on his site; he was far too nice to them. Leaving aside the issue of childless people in general, most of whom are perfectly nice folks, the sort of evolutionary cul-de-sacs who vent about the evils of breeding on alt.support.childfree are exactly the sort of people that I want to see smeared with the rhinovirus-infested mucus of an out-of-control three-year-old at the mall. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to have the lot of them trapped on a cross-country bus trip surrounded by progeny of Jerry Springer viewers, hyperspastic white trash pupae sustained during their journey with squirtguns, noisy toys and enamel-eroding doses of cola and Butterfinger BBs. I snort in delight at the idea of one of these child-despisers owning a malfunctioning Tivo that only records episodes of Dora the Explorer and The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. The reason for this is simple: Anyone who hates children and a culture that accommodates them that much should be served up the absolute worst that culture can dish out. Eat it up, pal. You asked for it.

Ironically, I’m not at all unsympathetic at much of what the alt.support.childfree types bitch about. Lots of tots are out of control and probably should be taken down with a tranquilizer gun from time to time; lots of clueless parents take kids to places they should not be, and should be beaten for it. It’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask what sort of flaming moron takes a two-year-old to a 10:15 showing of Panic Room; it’s also perfectly reasonable to expect the parent of a screaming kid at a restaurant to remove the kid until it calms down. These aren’t issues of the child-bearing versus the childfree; it’s a matter of having a clue about what’s minimally appropriate public behavior.

Krissy and I are fortunate that Athena is well-behaved in public more often than not, but we’re also fairly sensitive about how much is too much. We don’t take her places we wouldn’t want to see other people’s kids, and when she does act up (and she does; she’s three), one of us deals with her before she becomes everyone’s problem. It’s what you’re supposed to do, and parents who don’t tend to their children are a legitimate nuisance. If you childless people think you’re hard on stupid parents, you should hear the rest of us parents talk about them.

This, however, does not equate with being at all sympathetic to alt.support.childfree posters, or being sympathetic with the sort of contempt they have for parents and kids in general. Again, let us posit that there is a substantial difference between choosing not to have children, as many people do, and actively hating those who do choose to have children, which is how many alt.support.childfree folks function.

People without children, I have no beef with; three of the best teachers I ever had were childless by choice and each of them was the sort of intensely admirable person whose influence was felt far beyond a mere transfer of genetic information. I don’t think any of them felt they missed anything by not having children of their own, and they were right about that. They were engaged, they were active, and they were loved by friends, students and colleagues. I don’t suspect that most people who choose not to have children resent those who do, and certainly don’t resent the children themselves.

People who are childless and hate those who have children (and the children too), I say unto you: Suck it, pal. You whine like crybaby preschoolers told by the teacher to share your toys. This whole “Oh, poor us, we’re oppressed by the breeders” line is crap; Like you, I was childless once, and for nearly 30 years. I don’t really recall the scrog-poppers going out of their way to oppress me; in fact, I remember more or less getting away with murder. I can’t imagine why you’re not doing the same. Maybe you’re doing it wrong. You must be doing it wrong, since the only other explanation as to why you obsess on how the breeders are screwing you over is that you’re sort of virulently dislikable loser who can’t feel happy unless you think that society is ramming you up the tailpipe. In any event, you’re certainly not superior for not having children. You’re merely increasing the odds that you’ll eventually die alone.

Which is fine. Anyone who can look at an infant and have oh, great, another drain on resources as their consistent foremost thought deserves to die alone. I mean, I don’t find exploding babies very funny any more, but that — well, that’s worth a chuckle or two.

Hints for White People

Abercrombie & Fitch just had to recall a whole bunch of shirts from its new line when it discovered, to its shock and dismay, that there are some Asian people out there who object to a t-shirt which features two slanty-eyed Chinese in coolie hats flanking a motto (“Two Wongs can make it white”) whose humor lies in exploiting the stereotypical Asian inability to pronounce the “r” sound. After all, what could possibly be offensive about that?

Here’s the key quote on this, from A&F spokesman Hampton Carney: “The thought was that everyone would love them, especially the Asian community. We thought they were cheeky, irreverent and funny and everyone would love them.”

Hampton Carney is whiter than Wonder Bread.

If there are any white people out there reading this right now (if you’re not sure, hold a limb up to Silly Putty and see if it matches), let me give you a little piece of advice: Ethnic minorities in the United States are still strangely unconvinced that you don’t yet see them primarily as a cheap and disposable way to make railroads or pick agricultural products out from the ground. This tends to make them a little touchy when you josh around about their ethnic characteristics. Yes, yes, I know, they make jokes about themselves all the time, and you didn’t have them make a railroad or pluck lettuce. You don’t have a racist bone in your pale, easily-burned body. It’s a shame the crimes of a hateful few have been visited upon you. But there it is.

Anytime you think that enough time has passed to allow you to be able to whip up some innocent ethnic-tinged humor, here’s a handy mathematical formula, just to be sure:

1. Take the number of years the ethnic group in question was abused/enslaved/pushed off land/discriminated against/provided smallpox-covered blankets/made to work illegally for pennies a day by white folk here in the US. This is your number X.

2. Take the number of years members of the ethnic group in question have been able to join a private country club in Georgia. This is your number Y.

3. Divide X by Y.

If the resulting number is greater than one, you will probably be equally stunned as Mr. Carney when your gentle ethnic ribbing is taken with something less than a graceful chuckle by those folks who are in that particular ethnic group. It’s probably best that you keep your wryly amusing idea to yourself. If that’s not possible, then what you might do is write down your humorous brainstorm, seal it up, and address it to whatever descendents of yours exist in the future when X/Y for this ethnic group = 1. There’s no doubt that your descendants will find insight from your observation.

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Demographic

I am a demographic anomaly. Since I’m essentially a yuppie geek living in farm country, the living embodiment of Green Acres (except that, given my wife’s love of the lawn tractor, I’m the one playing Eva Gabor), this isn’t exactly what one would call a surprise. Still, there’s a difference between thinking you’re a fish out of water and looking at the demographic information that says that you’re not even really a fish.

The demographic information I’m talking about is from Claritas, a company that presents market information to businesses, and which also has a Website that allows you to enter your Zip Code and find out some general information about the neighborhood in which you live. This is done by breaking up the residents into various “clusters,” or demographic stereotypes; the people in each cluster share certain data points in common, such as income, education, recreational activities and so on. There are several dozen of these clusters, and and their predominance will vary from place to place. For example, one cannot reasonably expect to find the “Rustic Homesteaders” segment in the South Side of Chicago, just as one is unlikely to find the “Urban Up and Comers” out near where I am.

The demographic names of the groups in my Zip Code (45308) give some indication that I’m not exactly living in the big city: “Back Country Folks” is one; “Big Sky Families” is another. “River City, USA” is another — this one comes complete with a graphic of a guy in a John Deere cap hoisting a sandbag. And here’s my personal favorite demographic slice: “Shotguns and Pickups.” Let’s zoom in on this one and look a bit at what they have to say about the people in it:

44 Shotguns & Pickups
Rural Blue-Collar Workers & Families
Age group: Mixed
Blue-Collar/Farming
Household income: 38,500
1.93% of U.S. households belong to this Cluster

This Cluster is most likely to…

* Go fresh water fishing
* Own a dog
* Drink RC Cola
* Watch ESPN2
* Read Motor Trend

Well, I do own a dog.

Now, obviously, these post-card demographic pictures aren’t going to be representative of any one person. I’m sure there are some people smack dab in the Shotgun & Pickup demographic who can’t stand RC or have no interest in the CART races on ESPN2. But picking through the demographic information in all of the predominant demographic chunks in the area, there’s almost no information that intersects with my life at all. A compare and contrast:

Top Magazines in Bradford’s Demographics: Country Living, Hunting, Motor Trend, Soap Opera Digest. I don’t subscribe to any of these; what’s more, I can’t imagine subscribing to any of these. My current magazine subscriptions include Science News, Wired, CMJ New Music Monthly, The Week and New Yorker.

Top TV Channels/Shows: QVC, TNN, Court TV, ESPN2, and the soap opera The Guiding Light. I think I’d rather injure myself than watch QVC for any length of time. My recent TV choices include Nickelodeon (for SpongeBob Squarepants), Cartoon Network, CNN Headline News, the Science Channel, and The West Wing.

Top Recreational Activities: Rodeo, target shooting, furniture refinishing, freshwater fishing, gardening. Well, Krissy gardens, so there’s one, but I dislike rodeos (I don’t think it’s nice to piss off animals just for fun) and fishing, and the only shooting I do involves people that come onto my land without an invite (that’s a hint). My top activities are playing music, reading, going to movies, playing video games and writing (hi there!).

I also learn that nearly everyone around me listens to country music radio, an activity that strikes me as even more painful than listening to urban radio, if that’s actually possible. These days when I listen to radio at all, it’s the “80s hits” station, and then I just spend most of my time seething that they never play Oingo Boingo or Romeo Void, ever, yet they play Dexy’s Midnight Runners and .38 Special every other song.

Before I’m accused of calling the folks I live around illiterate white trash what watch their stories on the teeveeuh and hang by the mailbox, waiting for their Farm Aid checks, let me just say that I know my neighbors, and they’re good people; I like them a lot, and I like the little town in which I live quite a bit. Having now lived in big cities, suburbia and rural America, I’m here to tell you that each comes with a full complement of the smart and the dumb, the wise and the moronic, the likeable and the distasteful; the major difference lies in population density. What I am saying is that the folks in my little town share certain superficial demographic characteristics, and I have almost none of those in common.

Demographically, I am nearly pure suburban. In fact, I’m a fine match for the last place we lived, Sterling, Virginia, whose demographic slices have names like “Young Influentials,” “Upward Bound,” “Second City Elite” and so on. One demographic, “Kids & Cul-de-Sacs,” pins us to a fairly scary degree, right down to Krissy’s penchant for the X-Files (though not so much recently, of course) and my tendency to shop online. One of the cities listed as having a lot of this demographic is West Covina, California; as it happens, I spend part of my childhood in that town (although, I must admit, not on a cul-de-sac). You really are where you live, or at least, where you grow up.

Overall, I expect it’s unlikely that I will ever totally conform to the demographics of where I live now; by this time, I’m too old to develop a taste for NASCAR, or church-going, or even gardening (that’s Krissy’s department). And of course, this is just fine. It doesn’t hurt to have a weirdo or two in the town, and I’m happy to pull that duty. I like where I live; I like being a little outside of it, too.

Little Bomber Girl

For my money (and since I am a taxpayer and at least a ten-spot of my taxes goes to the State Department every year, it is my money), this is the picture that should utterly kill what little sympathy for the Palestinian cause remains here in the United States: The picture is of a protest held in Berlin; the cute little girl in the picture has fake explosives strapped to her tummy. Being all of about five, it’s pretty clear she didn’t think up the idea of turning herself into a poster child for nitroglycerin; one suspects credit for that one goes to dear ol’ dad, currently hoisting his little girl on his shoulders.

Well, I say, fine. Let’s go ahead and strap some C-4 to this little girl, blow her up in a field (after all, not every suicide bomber takes someone with him or her — that’s just the risk you take), hand dad a pair of tweezers and make him pick up what little remains. See if he thinks it’s such a bright idea then. In fact, new rule: Let’s make every family of a suicide bomber responsible for the cleanup. I doubt there’s much that will make one reassess the validity of “martyrdom” more than scooping up a handful of intestines that are all that’s left of your child (or the people he or she blew up; it’s hard to tell from only a short length of duodenum) and watching them slide slickly into a Hefty bag.

Arafat’s wife, taking up the slack for her husband, recently mentioned to an Arabic-language magazine how she’d be proud if her son blew herself up to kill some Israelis (conveniently for her, she has only a daughter); get her a pair of tweezers for the next bombing. Get Arafat a pair, too, while we’re at it; sure, he denounced terror bombings in Arabic as the price for getting a chance to reject Colin Powell’s mission in person, but given the timing of his wife’s comments, which hit the newsstands concurrently with Arafat’s denunciation, let’s just say I’m less than convinced about the sincerity. It goes without saying that none of Arafat’s kids will ever blow themselves up; I wonder how many kids of the other Palestinian top brass have walked a checkpoint with fuses stuffed into their shorts. I expect it’s a low number. Blowing up Palestinians is all well and good, as long as it’s a certain class of Palestinian.

I have my own opinions about the ultimate disposition of the Palestinian people, which I won’t bother to share at the moment, but I will say this about this one specific father. I wish that years from now, as he dandles the baby of that little girl on a knee, he comes across this picture (believe me, it’ll still be around) and he looks at the message he sent to the world: That his aspirations for his child were that she strapped death to her young body and walked into a crowd. I hope that what he feels is the sort of shame that’s a stench on the soul — and that he realizes to his guilty relief that his shame feels immeasurably better than the “pride” of having a martyred child.

Being a Good Father

E-mail today from a correspondent who suggests that on the basis of what I wrote yesterday, I consider myself better than the “so-called deadbeat” dads that I imagine others seeing me as because I’m out alone with my kid in the middle of the afternoon — i.e., unemployed and/or seeing their children through court-ordered visitation. So, just make to make sure we’re all absolutely clear on this one, and that there are no mixed signals whatsoever:

Duh. You’re damn right that I think I’m a better dad than that.

I mean, really. This one’s a no-brainer. On one hand, you have a guy who works hard and makes a good living for his family and stayed at home to care for his child while his wife worked outside of the home and/or went to college (that’d be me). On the other hand, you have a dad who can’t or won’t hold a job and desultorily sees his kids when the court makes him (the theoretical deadbeat of the previous column). Okay, now pretend you’re a kid. Pick one. Even implying these scenarios is in some way equivalent seems to require one to drink deeply from a very special brand of stupidity.

I’m certainly not saying being unemployed automatically drops you into the “bad dad” camp. Unemployment is often a temporary situation, hopefully correctable, although if you make a habit out of being unemployed because you just can’t live by the man’s rules, that’s never any good. Likewise, having to live with visitation when one is divorced is no fun, but if you do it and don’t make it seem like a chore, good on you. Making it a grim, joyless experience does definitely make you a bad dad, however. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. You simply suck.

(And of course we all know of dads who don’t bother to hold up their end of visitation, or who don’t think to drop a child support check in the mail like they’re supposed to. These gentlemen need to meet the service end of my shovel.)

Moreover, I am absolutely judgmental when it comes to parenting, and particularly when it comes to being a dad. Being a parent is hard work, and it often means making hard choices. If you can’t or won’t make those choices, you get a markdown in my book. It’s pretty simple. You can be a great parent and raise a rotten kid, and vice-versa; it’s important to remember that kids are people too, and some of them will confound your expectations no matter what you do. Be that as it may, every parent should be expected to lay the table, as it were, for their child, to do what they can to provide their children the tools they need for life. If you can’t or won’t do that, you’ve got a problem as a parent.

I feel pretty good about myself as a father. I’m not perfect, which is a statement that should be understood as a given for any dad. Anyway, perfect dads are creepy. But I lay the table. My work tends to my family’s financial needs. My wife and I are mindful of our relationship, not simply for ourselves, but because we know enough to know that a solid marriage is the cornerstone of a solid family. I cherish my daughter for the remarkable human being she is at the moment, and for everything she can become. I love helping her learn about the world and her place in it; I love being a part of her play. Even when she utterly drives me up the friggin’ wall – which is often, she is three — I simply can’t imagine not having her in my life every day; I can’t imagine not being willing to break my own back to do for her. Here’s the thing, however: I’m not doing anything special. It’s what’s in the job description. It’s what dads are supposed to do.

I am a very good father (so far). I am better than many fathers I have known, although I am pleased to say that I look around me every day and see other fathers who are doing equally well in their responsibilities as a parent. I work hard every day to continue to be a good father. I’ll work hard at it every day until they shove me into the ground.

I don’t deserve a medal for being a good father; it’s what I’m supposed to be. But if you think I don’t recognize that I do a good job at it, and a better job than many others are doing, you’re nuts. If you don’t think I’m proud of that fact, you’re high. If you think I shouldn’t think I’m better than a dad who won’t do as I do for my family and my child, well, here’s my ass. Feel free to bite it.

Afternoon Dads

There is nothing more pathetic than a dad alone with his kid in the early afternoon. I don’t say this as a matter of a personal opinion, mind you. Having been out with my kid during that time, I’m here to tell you that the time is generally pleasantly spent, although it’s generally spent in the playroom of a franchise restaurant. No, it’s a matter of how others seem to look at you while you’re doing it.

The reason for this attitude is fairly obvious. Most fathers (indeed, most men) of employable age are scarce on the ground during the working day. If you ever want to see what the world would look like without men, visit a shopping mall at two in the afternoon. Compounded with this is the fact that women, for better or worse, are still the primary caregivers in almost all families, at least in the rural, agrarian, small-town part of the world in which I live. Add these two points together, and here’s the general opinion of the single dad schlepping his kid about after preschool:

1. He’s unemployed.

2. He’s performing court-ordered visitation.

3. He’s unemployed and performing court-ordered visitation.

Really, these are only three options. Why else would you be with your kid? Alone? During work hours? So you get that glance, the cool appraisal expression that says, well, he at least spends time with his kid. He’s not entirely a deadbeat, and then the quick glance away. It doesn’t help matters that I’m currently sporting roughly four days worth of stubble, which gives me that not-so-fresh, he’s-got-a-lot-of-time-on-his-hands sort of look (hey, my wife is away. Who am I going to kiss?).

I’m not really offended by the summary judgment; short of walking around with a t-shirt that reads “Employed and Married!” there’s no way to conveniently explain my job or marital status, and pre-emptively trying to explain my position to everyone I meet is likely to have a negative effect (“Really, I work from home and my wife is on a trip.” “Uh-huh. You know, Taco Bell is hiring.”). But I do think it’s interesting.

I’ll note that it wasn’t always this way. When Athena was a toddler and I carted her from place to place by myself, I was typically greeted with smiles. A dad with an infant is assumed to be married, for one thing. You may be unemployed, but at least you’re still sticking with the family.

Walking around with a three-year-old is more ambiguous. Lots of dads ditch non-infants, and statistically speaking, I’m judged likely to be one of them. It’s less of an appraisal of me than the male animal in a general sense. I accept it, but it’s not very good news for the rest of you guys that the first thing people think of when they see a dad spending time with his kid in the afternoon is: Bum.

***

To put in one final note in the general area of the “Blog numbers” issue, I want to note this portion of Andrew Sullivan’s response to the piece, which, I should say, had interesting points but was also a marvel of deflection (he rhetorically brushed aside questions of overall blog numbers by hauling in Drudge, who, although handily predating to Blog movement, was grandfathered in to make his point). Here’s the portion of Sullivan’s response I want to note:

“John Scalzi’s piece all but accuses this site and others of fibbing about our numbers. (Scalzi, it should be remembered is Ted Rall’s good friend.)”

This is an interesting rhetorical maneuver. Ted Rall, as you’ll no doubt recall, is the cartoonist whose “Terror Widows” cartoon caused a national uproar, and indeed, I am one of the few people who did not immediately call for Ted to be shot for treason for drawing it (if you missed the fracas, the details are here). For those of conservative bent, Ted is the sort of deranged, fire-breathing liberal who is easy to hate because he’s wrong about everything and almost certainly eats babies with a knife and fork and tasty dipping sauce. So by allying me with Ted, what Sullivan is saying is:

“This jerk is accusing me of lying, but he’s probably off eating babies with Ted Rall, so you don’t really need to believe anything he would ever have to say about anything, ever.”

From a technique point of view I think this is a nice attempt by Sullivan to deflect credibility, but I think it signals that Sullivan recognized he’s arguing from a position of weakness. If he had more confidence in what his numbers actually meant, he wouldn’t have had to try to slam the messenger by bringing up his friends; either that or he can’t help bringing up Ted’s name to frighten the children at every opportunity.

(Also, to be clear, I don’t suspect Sullivan was lying about his numbers, although it seems evident that prior to the columns he wasn’t entirely sure what his numbers represented, or didn’t represent, as the case may be. This is not especially his fault — ultimately, it’s an abstruse concept, and hopefully the end result of the last couple of days is a clearer understanding for everyone what the stats are, and what they actually report.)

What I wrote to Sullivan on the Ted Rall comment was simply this: “You are right, Ted Rall is my good friend.” Because it’s true. I know Ted Rall. I’ve worked with Ted Rall. Ted Rall is a friend of mine. Sullivan certainly is no Ted Rall. I guarantee you Sullivan is pleased that I recognize such a thing is true, although I suspect the reasons for that are not the same reasons I mention the fact.

Blog Numbers Followup

Quick follow-up on yesterday’s piece, and I do mean quick, since it’s 2:30 and I have to be up in a few hours to take Athena to preschool:

* Several people wrote to ask why, when I was discussing my readership here vs. my readership elsewhere, I compared circulation numbers of newspapers and magazines with visitors to Web sites. The (quite accurate) point here is that circulation numbers showed the potential pool of readership for any one article in a paper or magazine, not the actual readership of that article (unless you assume that everyone reads papers and magazines cover-to-cover), whereas Web page visits actually register a visit (and, presumably, a read). Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges.

This is true enough, and I’ll grant it willingly, especially because I don’t particularly feel it invalidates my point. Even a fraction of the readership of a newspaper or magazine (or Web site like Slate or Salon) is larger than the total readership of most blog sites. To return to the example I gave of my DVD column in the Dayton Daily News, even if only 1 out of 10 readers that day glanced at it, that’s still a readership of 14,000, well outstripping my estimated 3,000 or so visitors over the course of a month (and coming close to my estimated daily readership for andrewsullivan.com and Instapundit). One-tenth of the circulation base of the New York Times is over 100,000, so any articles Sullivan gets in there would easily outdo his daily Web site visits. And of course, one assumes that more than 1/10th of the daily NYT audience would actually be interested in what Sullivan has to say — unlike me, people outside of his circle of friends know who he is.

(Also, any circulation manager will tell you that circulation numbers underreport total readership, since more than one person in a household will read a paper or magazine. When I worked at the Fresno Bee, the paper had a circulation of 150,000, but claimed readership of more than double that.)

Some people additionally looked askance at my estimation of 1,000,000 readers for my non-Web site work, which is fair enough. However, I’ll note the newsletters I write are opt-in, which means people have to sign up to get them, so the number there (500k) is pretty solid. I also feel pretty good about the DVD and CD reviews in Official PlayStation Magazine, since, if I may say so, the layout for these babies is pretty sweet; The DVD reviews go across two entire pages. You really can’t miss ‘em (buy a copy and see for yourself. Buy two! They’re small). Even throwing out the DDN numbers, my non-Web site readership outdoes my Web site readership by a multiple of at least a couple hundred. With multiples like that, the point still stands. Others ranging from Sullivan to Lileks to Marshall may have less dramatic multiples (they have much larger Web site readerships), but the multiples are still there.

* Getting back to Andrew Sullivan, his Web master got back to me with some updated numbers for the site. He writes:

“Andrew Sullivan’s website receives an average of 40K visits per weekday right now, or about, 25K daily uniques. This translates to about 200K monthly uniques, and slightly under a million visits.”

So, does this mean that the site receives 25,000 individual visitors daily, and 200,000 individuals over the course of a month? Well, no, not necessarily.

Here’s why: “Uniques” represent distinct IP addresses that visit a site; every computer on the Web has its own IP address. But there are two major types of IP addresses out there: Static IPs and dynamic IPs. Static IPs never change; these are for people who have their own servers. Dynamic IPs do change, every time you sign on. Most people have dynamic IPs because they go through an ISP, and most ISPs assign their users dynamic IP addresses when they go online (what, you think your ISP buys a new computer each time someone subscribes?).

So, for most people, if you visit this site, log off for lunch, then sign on again and come back, my site will log you as having two distinct IP addresses — and therefore as two unique visitors. If you had trouble following that, here’s the short version: Most people look like someone new every time they sign on to the Web. At least to a Web server.

(And actually, AOL uses “floating IP,” which means the IP address you use can change several times during the same Internet session!)

Therefore: Even the unique visits metric can overreport the actual number of visitors (it can also underreport if your company routes its Web traffic through a firewall, but I suspect that over the course of time, there’s more overreporting than underreporting, if for no other reason than AOL has 30 million subscribers and everyone else doesn’t). On a daily basis, this overreporting is relatively small (although probably larger on blogs than on other sites, since people often come back to blogs more than once in a day), but it compounds the longer the metric is used; use it to chart an entire month, and it’s probably not at all accurate.

You see where I’m going here. The 25K daily figure is probably not too far off; I’d trim about 5k from it to be safe, but, okay, 20K is still pretty damn good when you consider the Web. But the 200K number is very suspect. If I had to guess (and I don’t, but I will), I’d guess that the actual number of individual visitors is substantially lower: Say, about 75k on the outside, and of those, probably 50k-60k are regular visitors (which is to say, they stop by more than once).

Please note that I do not necessarily think Sullivan’s Web master was trying to pull a fast one here; he’s not to blame that the fundamental architecture of the Web makes it difficult to accurately gauge visitors over any large length of time (or, in dealing with AOL members, over any length of time at all). It’s simply a reminder that when you’re pulling numbers off the Web, they’re usually not what they seem; they’re usually a lot less.

* Also to be clear, I have no jihad against Andrew Sullivan in particular (or Glenn Reynolds, whose blog was also featured prominently in yesterday’s column). I used them primarily because a) Norah Vincent used their sites for the numbers in her LA Times opinion piece; b) As they are the best-known of the bloggers, they make convenient examples. For the record, I like both sites and both writers just fine (I don’t know either of them personally). Neither of them exactly has my politics, but neither does my mother, and I like her just fine, too. I’m aware that some folks have already started to use yesterday’s column as a cudgel against Sullivan, who has gained ill will in some circles. It’s not about Sullivan or Reynolds personally, it’s about numbers (or lack thereof), which, mostly as a matter of my convenience, happen to be theirs.

* At the request of irritated readers, I am dropping the apostrophe in front of the word “blog,” since the word has apparently entirely graduated into being its own thing and not just a shortened version of “Weblog.” One reader wrote: “A blog is a blog the way a phone is a phone.” He is, of course, referring to a ‘phone there.

Questioning Blog Numbers

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed that the People of the ‘Blog — the folks who write and post Weblogs on their Web sites — have been feeling like they’re riding the crest of a media wave. This was capped this last week by two positive media notices: An LA Times opinion piece by Norah Vincent praising the ‘blog nation, and piece on ‘blogging in the May Wired by journalist and ‘blogger Andrew Sullivan. There was also a negative bit by the Boston Globe’s Alex Beam, who frankly made an ass of himself by whining about the ‘blogs, his assery additionally compounded because he fell for an April Fool’s ‘blog joke (whoops).

Generally, the feeling in ‘Blogistan is that the ‘blogs are about to break into the big time — and that perhaps a few of the top-tier blogs may even approach a mass media status: In the same Wired that features Sullivan’s ‘blog appreciation is a bet between Dave Winer and New York Times Digital CEO Martin Nisenholtz that by 2007, a ‘blog will outrank the New York Times as a news source three Google searches out of five (Winer is for; Nisenholtz, quite understandably, is against).

There’s just one minor problem with this “‘blog reaching critical mass” story: It’s a lie. Or more accurately, any representation by the ‘blog nation (or its compatriots) as being a threat to the conventional media or even an “irritation,” as Vincent describes them, is wildly overstated. ‘Blogs may be growing in numbers and readership, but that is because they are effectively starting from zero; there’s nowhere else to go but up. How far up, and how much of an impact they will ultimately make, well, that’s the real question — and I suspect the answer will be: Much less than ‘bloggers currently think. I’m not against ‘blogging or writing online on one’s personal Web site — check my archives to see how long I’ve been writing here — but I think before anyone goes trying to claim themselves the next wave of media, a perspective check is probably in order.

The two primary points of the ‘blog ascendancy argument are that ‘blog readership is up — and growing. Vincent notes this in her LA Times piece:

“One of the most popular such sites, andrewsullivan.com, written by the eponymous pundit and former New Republic editor, gets about 35,000 hits, or visits, a day. Another, InstaPundit.com, run by University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, just reported a record 43,000 visits in one day.”

43,000 or 35,000 visitors in one day isn’t a bad number by any standard; during the go-go days of the 90s, that number of daily visitors could probably have gotten you VC funding and a sweet IPO. But there are a few problems with these numbers:

1. ‘Blog numbers are typically self-reported, not audited. So some fibbing may (may) be involved. Yes, it seems a bit of an overkill for a personal site to be audited by a third party, but on the other hand, if you’re going to toss out numbers as facts to prove an assertion, they should probably be verified independently. If nothing else, this would solve the problem of confusion as to what your numbers actually mean. This brings us to point #2:

2. Ms. Vincent may not be aware of this (it is admittedly an obscure, geeky thing to know), but “hits” are not the same thing as “visits.” A Web site “hit” is simply any request for information from a site’s server: Web pages, pictures, scripts and so on. If you have a Web page that has a picture on it and someone pulls it up to read it, that counts as two “hits” even though there’s just one visitor. The main page of andrewsullivan.com has, by my count, 22 graphics on it (I may have missed a few), which means that each page view requires 23 hits. So those 35,000 hits could conceivably boil down to a mere 1,500 visits each day — a nice little number, but not the numbers that herald the birth of a new and influential mass media.

3. But let’s assume that when Vincent was talking about “hits” she really did mean “visits,” which is to say, a single page view. So Sullivan is back up to 35,000 visitors a day, and Glenn Reynolds has his 43,000 visitors daily as well. Or do they? Probably not, due to the nature of the ‘blogs themselves. ‘Blogs tend to be constantly updated, which encourages repeat viewings over a single day. For example, I’m currently enjoying USS Clueless, which updates irregularly during the course of the day. So I check back three or four times a day — a single visitor, but I’m still recorded as three or four visits. I would suspect that most ‘blog readers check in more than once a day. Depending on the avidity of the visitors, those 35K and 43K “visits” trend down in terms of actual individual visitors each day.

I would expect in terms of actual individual visitors daily, both Sullivan and Reynolds are bringing in somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 daily (entire weekly audiences are probably slightly larger, but not by much, since people visit their favorite ‘blog daily) — again, not bad, but a far cry from 35,000 and 43,000, and not large by any definition other than relative to other ‘blogs. Which brings us to a final point:

4. Andrewsullivan.com and Instapundit are being used as examples because they are extraordinarily popular sites, in terms of ‘blogs; nearly every other ‘blog has traffic that is exponentially lower in number than those two. These two are less part of a growing trend than they are exceptions to the generally low traffic these sort of sites generate.

So much for the idea of the ‘blog audience being very large, at least in terms of any one individual ‘blogger. But as I mentioned earlier, the ‘blog audience is starting from zero, so a small audience is to be expected, at least at first. What’s important is that the ‘blog audience is growing — that’s the other side of the “critical mass” argument. Well, I won’t dispute that the ‘blog audience is growing; the question is, does it grow as well as conventional media site audiences grow?

A number of conventional media reported numbers on their online adjuncts last week, and the numbers are impressive (as is to be expected, since people are on the hunt for news about the Middle East): The Chicago Tribune reported a readership of 479,000 unique visitors last week (unique visitors, as opposed to “visits” or “hits” — although bear in mind that even the “unique visitors” stat is not going to be entirely accurate), an increase of 65% over their readership the week before. New York Post: 817,000 unique weekly visitors, up 59%. New York Times: 2.2 million, up 24%. LA Times: 618,000, up 21% (Norah Vincent was smart to declare the arrival of the ‘blog in the LA Times, since it’s entirely likely that more people read her article on the LA Times Web site than actually read either Sullivan or Reynolds’ site that day — not to mention in the actual paper itself).

Since the raw numbers regarding ‘blog visits are somewhat shaky, the numbers regarding their percentage growth are likely to be equally so, but I’d be interested to see if the top 10 ‘blogs, whatever they may be, averaged the same sort of percentage growth last week as the top 10 conventional media sites. If they didn’t, then the odds of Nisenholtz winning his Wired bet just got better. Not only that, but Vincent’s argument of ‘blogging being an alternative to a liberal media (many ‘bloggers are conservative) is shown to be somewhat specious, since it shows that when people want news online, what they do is go to the usual suspects first.

Given the small number of visitors to ‘blogs, this following point will come as no surprise: Most professional journalists who write ‘blogs write them for the smallest audiences they reach. I don’t have to pick on Sullivan for this one, since I can use my own site as an example. Over the last four weeks, I’ve averaged 1,400 visits daily (a number probably closer to the actual number of daily visitors than either Sullivan or Reynolds, since I typically only update once a day, if that). Over the course of a month, I’d estimate that works out to between 2,000 or 3,000 regular readers, which means that this site is comfortably midlist; I’m not Sullivan or Reynolds, but I’m not some schmuck with a spanky new Blogger account, either. So, anyway: 2,000 to 3,000 regular readers for the site. Let’s contrast this with my other regular audiences:

* CD/DVD reviews for Official US Playstation Magazine: 360,000 monthly

* Weekly DVD column for Dayton Daily News: 140,000 weekly

* 4 Online Newsletters (2 personal finance, 1 food, 1 photography): 500,000 weekly (aggregate)

So: My personal site: 3,000 readers at best. My other work: 1,000,000 readers, for a ratio of 1 to 333 (I don’t include my corporate work in this, since I have no way of tracking how many people see that). My site is going to have become a lot more popular before it even begins to rival my reach in conventional online and offline media. Or, to present another perspective on the matter: My recent “I Hate Your Politics” column was avidly linked to on blogs and other sites, even “charting” on MIT’s Blogdex for a few days. Total visits over two weeks: 10,000 or so. One of the people who read it was the editor of the Willamette Week alt-newsweekly, who bought it to reprint in his paper. Total readership: 85,000. Eight times as many people will be exposed to it in print than saw it on the Web in two weeks.

And so it goes with others. Sullivan crows about the potential of ‘blogs, but does so in Wired (circ: 500,000). His presence on the Web is dwarfed by his reach in the New York Times and the other places he writes to make scratch. Joshua Micha Marshall, one of the few liberal ‘bloggers with any popularity, gets vastly more readers every time he’s published in Salon or the New York Post. James Lileks’ immensely popular site’s readership is dwarfed by the public for his “Backfence” column in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Their reasons for writing on the Web are their own — but it’s not because they were looking for a larger audience than what they already had.

(Incidentally, it’s also worth noting that many of the most popular ‘blogs are written by established journalists and writers — i.e., people who have made their writing bones before coming to the ‘blog lifestyle. I don’t think it’s a reach to say one of the major reasons that Andrew Sullivan’s site is popular is because he was already a controversial and polarizing figure; if he was just another guy spouting off on the Web instead of a former editor of the New Republic, substantially fewer people would care what he had to say (this is also one of the reasons why Sullivan is revered among the ‘bloglitariat — he’s a big-shot writer who descended from on high to bless the ‘blogs). Whether the ‘bloggers choose to recognize it or not, they still look to and crave recognition from the very media they profess to irritate or, with more hubris, plan to usurp.)

Those who have any sense of ‘Net history will note that the “Rise of the ‘Blogs” closely resembles the putative rise of an earlier generation of personal Web sites known as the online journal, in which the writers, like ‘bloggers, wrote about current events and linked to friends and strangers who had similar views and opinions. Many of these online journals were as popular in their day as the top-tier ‘blogs are today: the late, lamented “Squishy” (written by the gifted Pamela Ribon) was so popular that her fans actually held a “Pamie-con” in Pamie’s honor. The movement was written up in national media, and some predicted that they represented the next mass media.

What happened to them? Well, nothing happened to them. Some of them went away because the writers got bored or decided to try to make money from writing instead of writing for free on the Web; some of them are still out there, writing away (and producing some very good writing doing it). It’s just that the cultural moment for the online journal passed, or, at the very least, mutated into the cultural moment for the ‘blog. The same fate does not necessarily await the ‘blog, but as elsewhere, history on the ‘Net seems to show a tendency to repeat itself.

Let’s posit that it won’t be a bad thing if all the ‘blogs ever become is what they already are. James Lileks, in his refutation of Alex Beam’s mostly brain-dead ‘blog lashing, noted that “The newspaper is a lecture. The Web is a conversation.” Lileks is absolutely correct in this assessment, and bloggers everywhere took it in as a maxim. Many ‘bloggers seem to be skimming over that fact that conversation, whatever other wonderful qualities it may have, is not a mass medium.